Roman’s Empire: Chapter Two: The Wilderness
Published by Breaking The Lines - breakingthelines.com
José had won it all. Though it took spending hundreds of millions of pounds in the transfer market, Roman Abramovich had secured the three English trophies with José Mourinho as the pioneer. Back-to-back title wins, two League Cups, and an FA cup later, Roman was in pursuit to find the next man to take his team to the promised land. His thirst for Europe’s greatest trophy was widely known, and any man willing to take on job would surely have to take the Blues to the Champions League Final.
“IN YOUR HEAD THERE ARE FOUR MONKEYS, AND THREE CHAIRS. LET’S FIND A FOURTH CHAIR,” ROMAN ABRAMOVICH.
With the departure of the “Special One,” still a fresh wound to those of the Bridge, Abramovich’s quest to the promised land continued. Forced to find a replacement who could fill the footprint that José had left behind, the search was not going to be easy. The 2007/08 season had already begun and there were not many professional options available; but then again, what are friends for?
“Grant is at Chelsea for one reason and one reason only, he is an Israeli-Russian in a club owned by an Israeli-obsessed Russian,” – David Mellor, Evening Standard pundit.
A tad harsh, but was this far from the truth? Having managed clubs only in Israel and the Israel international team, what did Roman see that was so special in him? In spite of their alleged friendship outside of the footballing world, his appointment was somewhat peculiar. Just three months into his previous role as Chelsea’s Director of Football, Grant was given the opportunity to make it front stage as the Chelsea first team manager and well considering the circumstances, what a job he did.
“I am a normal person. I have my own philosophy.” Playing down the expectation of becoming the reincarnated “Special One,” Grant referred to himself as the normal one, a nickname that would be adopted a decade later by Jürgen Klopp. His first test? Old Trafford.
Having not scored in their last two Premier League matches and salvaging a 1-1 draw in their first Champions League game of the season, Grant was tasked with a burden. Not only was the team in despair amidst Mourinho’s departure, the team was far from complete. With star players including Ricardo Carvalho, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba ruled out for Grant’s debut, the pressure to make a good first impression was immense, and as we all may or may not remember, the pressure prevailed.
In his first 45 minutes as head coach, a 20-year-old John Obi Mikel was sent off at Mike Dean’s tainted discretion. As a result, Grant’s boys were often behind the ball, hopeful for a chance to attack on the counter. United, the boys in red, never gave them that chance. On the cusp of halftime, Ryan Giggs’ cross met the head of Carlos Tevez, and the defending English champions entered halftime with a one-goal lead and a one-man advantage.
Grant tried to level things up tactically, but the impact was minimal. Tal Ben Haim’s soft challenge on Louis Saha inside the 18 yard box was called for a penalty, and the boys in red sealed the win and Grant’s first defeat in charge. The name of José Mourinho echoed like a broken record amongst the Chelsea supporters, and it continued to reverberate for the remainder of the season.
“We can play better. It’s not been good enough for Chelsea,” – Avram Grant.
Grant lamented his side’s poor performance after his third game in charge, a stalemate against Fulham, but throughout his term in the English capital, he seldom complained about his squad, injuries, lack of activity in the transfer market, and he never floated the idea of a conspiracy against Chelsea, so as to shift blame onto the referees for their poor form. He kept his head down and attempted to get the most out of what was always going to be a shaky transitional period.
Moving forward, the Israeli made the big step to drop Abramovich’s dear friend Andriy Shevchenko to the bench in favour of Solomon Kalou. The Ivorian, coupled with his compatriot Didier Drogba, broke a 490-minute Premier League goal drought and paved the way for a 9-game unbeaten run. Kalou had relegated the £30 million forward to the bench, and as we had learnt from José’s internal war with Roman, this was a gamble. He literally became third choice striker, behind the two Ivorians. While the Ukrainian enjoyed a productive spell in the Christmas period, he failed to live up to his price tag, going down as one of the biggest flops in Premier League history. Eventually, Roman gave in: Shevchenko left, first on loan to Milan in the summer of 2008, then permanently in the summer of 2009 to Dynamo Kyiv.
‘Close but no cigar’ soon became the theme of Grant’s season. Chelsea marched past Hull, Leicester, Liverpool and Everton en route to a League Cup final against a burgeoning Spurs side. Before the break, the Blues went ahead courtesy of a trademark Drogba free kick. Dimitar Berbatov leveled the scoreline in the second half, and just four minutes into extra time, Spurs took the lead with Jonathan Woodgate connecting on Jermaine Jenas’ free kick, as Petr Čech failed to clear it.
Grant did everything right. Positive substitutions, tactical changes, switching to a 4-2-2-2 in the hopes of a stronger attacking force. Nothing happened. Eyebrows were raised, and Grant once again found himself under immense pressure. The trophy that the ‘Special One’ had attained twice had slipped away from Grant’s hands. He may have despised the nonstop comparisons to his predecessor, but the scrutiny only grew surrounding his competence, considering he had borrowed José’s formation for the entire season under his “own philosophy”.
Though his philosophy mimicked that of the ‘Special One,’ a 4-3-3 mastermind, Grant struggled for the domestic success that came so naturally to Mourinho. Though not far behind, Chelsea constantly languished in the shadows of Sir Alex Ferguson’s super team, a shadow that would foreshadow the ending of Grant’s term: May 21, 2008, a night in which all Chelsea fans would soon loathe to remember.
Though Grant failed to obtain the coveted chair for the fourth monkey as Abramovich had hoped, he came as close as anyone could’ve. After blowing past Olympiacos in the Round of 16, Chelsea encountered a daunting task away at Fenerbache. With Zico’s Fener mounting an impressive comeback to win the first leg 2-1, Chelsea needed a win, and likely a clean sheet, to advance. After an early injury to backup Carlo Cudicini, long-time 3rd choice goalkeeper Hilário, then just 22, had to step up and protect Chelsea’s net. He held on for a 3-2 win on aggregate, and Chelsea found themselves back where they were in 2005 and 2007: the semifinals against Rafa Benítez’s Liverpool.
For three of the past four seasons, Chelsea had fallen at this hurdle: in 2004 to Didier Deschamps’ Monaco, in 2005 and 2007 to Benítez’s Liverpool. The fans, spoiled by newfound success, wanted blood, and Grant’s men did not disappoint. After the second leg carried on into extra time, late goals from Drogba and Frank Lampard saw Chelsea advance to the first Champions League Final in club history.
Wednesday, 21st May 2008. Moscow, Russia. The exact day which would determine Grant’s future. A fixture that symbolised the battle of England’s greats: Manchester United vs. Chelsea. Since Roman’s empire had been built, Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United had struggled to establish a stranglehold on domestic trophies, but after narrowly winning back-to-back league titles against Chelsea, United had a chance to establish full supremacy. It was time to settle the debate of who was England’s finest side.
It was never going to be an easy task for Grant, but if there was ever a man who was familiar with pressure, it was him. Or so we thought.
“He stumbled over words, stammered and tied himself in knots. The players tried to concentrate but eventually left the dressing room none the wiser. It was evident to the Chelsea squad that Grant was, a dressing room source said, ‘more nervous than the players’”. The rest, as they say, was history.
Cristiano with the opening goal, Lampard with the equaliser. Grant had to make changes to gain the upper hand, and he got it right, switching to a 4-2-2-2 and improving Chelsea’s attacking threat. And yet, like everything in Grant’s term, it was so close, yet ultimately out of reach. After 116 minutes of exhilarating football, England’s greats were all square and headed to penalties, but with three minutes left, Drogba was sent off for slapping Nemanja Vidić’s face, leaving Grant short of options. Then, with Chelsea just inches away from sealing their first European trophy, John Terry slipped on the rainy Moscow pitch and his shot careened off the crossbar. It was now up to Nicholas Anelka, the man who Grant convinced Abramovich to spend £15 million on just four months prior, to score in order to keep Chelsea’s Champions League hopes alive. Edwin van der Sar saved the shot, and just like that, Avram Grant’s spell at Chelsea came to an abrupt end.
“I took on the job at a very difficult time but Chelsea have pulled the plug on me.“ His head buried in disbelief, Grant announced that his time was up in the capital. The first person to react to the news? None other than the Special One himself, who, just days later, would be announced as Inter Milan’s incoming manager.
“In my philosophy, [this season] was a very bad one because in football, ‘almost’ means defeat and Chelsea almost won the Carling Cup, almost won the Champions League and almost won the Premier League. Almost is nothing… Maybe in the philosophy of a loser this was a great season, which I respect,”– José Mourinho.
The story of Avram Grant is one that sent a message out to the rest of managers in Europe. Roman Abramovich wanted nothing more than the Champions League trophy, and he was willing to fire anybody who was not equipped to hand it to him, even if the reasons for that failure may have been beyond the manager’s control. And so, the walk through the wilderness continued with Luiz Felipe Scolari taking on the mantle. What a short walk that would turn out to be.
Nine months. That’s all it took. Where was Chelsea after nine months under Scolari? Fourth in the Premier League, en route to the Champions League Round of 16, and still alive in the FA Cup. Fast forward exactly ten years, and Chelsea finds itself in the exact same position under Maurizio Sarri. And yet, Chelsea sacked Scolari “to maintain a challenge for the trophies we are still competing for,” according to the club’s website.
“Chelsea is a boiling pot – not a real football club. They are an artificial construction… They are wrong to let a coach of Scolari’s experience and knowledge go,” – Wanderley Luxemburgo, legendary Brazilian manager.
The sacking of the former World Cup winner shocked the world. Due to “communication problems,” Chelsea had publicly announced the dismissal of Scolari, just ahead of a series of crucial matches: Watford in the FA Cup, Aston Villa in the Premier League, and Juventus in the Champions League. But despite his widely publicized struggles with the English language, Scolari’s premature exit cannot simply be blamed on communication problems.
Some blamed Abramovich’s lack of patience, some blamed Scolari’s unsuccessful signings of Deco, Ricardo Quaresma, and Mineiro. Scolari himself blames Anelka, who refused to play on the wing after Drogba’s return from injury. Anelka blames Grant, the man who convinced Abramovich to bring him to Chelsea, for his decisive penalty miss in Moscow.
“Grant threw me on as a sub without giving me any warning. In the end I messed up the very last penalty in the shootout, which Edwin van der Sar pushed away. It is sad to say but I knew I was going to miss my kick.”
Chelsea continued to stumble through the wilderness, as players and coaches alike played the blame game against each other.
Russia national manager Gus Hiddink was brought in as Scolari’s replacement after Ray Wilkins served a brief spell as caretaker manager. Immediately, Hiddink revived Chelsea, who won four straight league games, as well as 11 out of their final 13 league games to secure a top three position and Champions League football for the seventh straight year. He led Chelsea to the FA Cup Final, where they defeated Everton. But mostly importantly, Hiddink led his men into another infamous fight for the elusive Champions League trophy. After eliminating Juventus and Liverpool, it was time to face the hottest kids on the block: Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
After a stalemate at the Camp Nou, the two sides went up against each other at the Camp Nou, with Manchester United having already qualified for the final. Little did they know it, but the date May 6, 2009 would go on in infamy as one of the most controversial and unjust matches in the history of modern football.
After decades of officiating in Norwegian football, referee Tom Henning Øvrebø, fresh off his first international assignment at Euro 2008, was selected as the referee for the second leg. After 90 minutes and stoppage time, Øvrebo’s reputation would be tarnished forever.
First, Michael Essien put the home side ahead with a thunderous strike from 25 yards out–the Ghanian’s left-footed valley careened off the crossbar and into Victor Valdés’ net, and Essien ran to the bench to embrace John Obi Mikel. Then, after that unforgettable screamer dusted off the cobwebs, instilled a sense of urgency in both teams, and woke everyone up, that’s when the fun really started.
The first missed call came when Dani Alves wrestled Florent Malouda down inside the box, but what clearly should have been a penalty kick was instead adjudged to be a free kick outside of the box.
The second missed call came when Eric Abidal kicked and tripped Drogba inside the box all the while grabbing his arm and tugging his shirt in a desperate attempt to keep pace with the Ivorian. It was a clear penalty, yet Øvrebo waved to play on.
It should be noted that not all of Øvrebo’s missed calls went Chelsea’s way–Abidal was sent off when Anelka failed to keep his footing and tripped himself into the ground–Abidal didn’t even make contact with him.
The red card aside, though, the majority of the calls went Barcelona’s way. Samuel Eto’o and Gerard Piqué both committed clear and obvious handballs inside the box that were ignored. Eventually, Andrés Iniesta sent Barcelona through with a last-minute screamer that will never be forgotten–for good or bad.
By the time the game had ended, Michael Ballack had chased Øvrebo up and down the pitch in demand of an explanation, while Drogba had proclaimed on live television, “it’s a fucking disgrace!” whilst being physically restrained by his teammates.
Øvrebø was escorted out of England by police in fears of his safety after receiving a number of death threats, threats that still continue to this day. José Bosingwa and Drogba were suspended for two games and three games, respectively. And after ending his international refereeing career a year later, Øvrebo retired entirely in October 2013.
And so ends this agonizing, confusing, and frustrating spell in Chelsea history. After two seasons and five managers, Abramovich had failed to re-establish domestic dominance in England, while coming close, and yet so far from achieving the coveted Champions League. At the end of the season, Chelsea announced the appointment of a man who had won four Champions League trophies with Milan: Carlo Ancelotti.